“In the Heart of the Sea” by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2000)

The Prequel to Moby-Dick

In the Heart of the Sea
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Not enough people have read Moby-Dick, and most people know it has something to do with a white whale and a nut called Ahab – oh yeah, and it starts off something like, “Call me Ishmael.”

All the above information is correct but deceptively vague.  The final scene in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick involves the whale ship in the novel, the Pequod, being struck head-on by the giant white sperm whale.  Some have question whether a whale would be able to do such a thing.  In the Heart of the Sea proves this to be true.

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick is the story about the tragedy of the whale ship Essex, which served as Melville’s research for the climactic final scene in Moby-Dick.  In 1819 the Essex set sail on a multiple-year journey around the world in search of whale, specifically sperm whales and their rich and expensive oil.  Fifteen months later, in the abyssal depths of the South Pacific, a whale rammed the ship head-on.  The hull was crippled and the ship quickly sank; all hands managed to escape on their large whaleboats.

Twenty men in three boats were set adrift in the world’s largest ocean, with little supplies and diminishing hope.  Nevertheless, their captain kept his courage: they debated heading west towards the Pacific islands, but feared cannibalism – gruesome details having been brought back from sailors who had sailed through the islands – instead, they struck out east, heading for South America.  So began their harrowing journey of starvation, isolation, and madness.

Three months later, two boats were discovered, with only eight of the remaining crew.  They were found gaunt and nothing but hanging flesh, the bones of their crew lay in the bottom of the boats, having provided a menial cannibalistic feast for the remaining members.

‘Tis a story of grave irony: a hardy crew set sail in opposite direction to that way which cannibals lie, ultimate suffering the same fate as their supposed enemies, reduced to consuming the flesh, skin and bone of their fellow seamen.  Nathaniel Philbrick does an excellent job of telling this gruesome story in vivid detail and moving narration.

Philbrick’s research features newly discovered documents on the fate of the Essex, featuring an account by Thomas Nickerson, who was one of the cabin boys on the Essex, discovered in an attic in New York in 1981.

The story is shocking, exciting and enthralling – and at the time the reader must constantly reaffirm to themselves that the events within these pages really took place.  Nathaniel Philbrick masters at telling a grand story of the high seas with a different ending that excels in every way.

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Originally published on May 14th 2001 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.

“Now and Forever: Somewhere a Band is Playing & Leviathan ’99” by Ray Bradbury (William Morrow, 2007)

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Now and Forever, the latest book from one of the best writers of our time, Ray Bradbury, brings together two novellas that have never been published in book form before.  While the two have little in common, they show two sides to Bradbury’s incredible imagination, giving you a taste of his greatness as a writer and story teller.

The first novella, Somewhere a Band is Playing, opens with the main character, James Cardiff, getting off a train that barely stops at a tiny station in the middle of nowhere.  But there is something special about Summerton, Arizona that makes Cardiff immediately fall in love with it.  As he enters the town and meets the first person, in the background is the quiet sound of a band playing.  In Summerton Cardiff discovers a quiet, peaceful place where one could settle down and feel very much at ease.  But the longer he spends there, the more mysterious it becomes.  He soon discovers that there are no children here, no one under twenty for that matter, that everyone is an adult, many of them old.  Cardiff then notices that there are no schools; that it seems like there have never been any children here.  Also that there are no hospitals or apparently any doctors, that people simply don’t get sick here.  He finally finds the cemetery but discovers that it is little more than a prop, serving no purpose except to reassure visitors that it exists.  Cardiff finally forces a confession out of the beautiful woman he has befriended who tells him what is going on and what is the true meaning behind Summerton, Arizona.  It is a story that defies belief, and yet makes so much sense.

While the first novella is a masterpiece in its own way, the second, Leviathan ’99, is one also, but in a totally different manner.  It is the year 2099 and the story is Moby-Dick, except characters names are different – of course, not Ishmael – and the ship does not travel across the ocean in search of a white whale, but across the darkness of space in search of the white meteor that has been plowing through galaxies.  The characters of Captain Ahab and Queequeg exist here with different names and are also alien beings.  Bradbury outdoes himself by not only distilling the story of Moby-Dick into a hundred-page novella, but by perfectly imitating the pacing, language and feel of Moby-Dick in his story with the characters’ thoughts and actions.

Now and Forever is a collection of two incredible stories that serve as a perfect introduction to the greatness of Ray Bradbury, not just one of the greatest science fiction writers of our time, but one of the greatest story tellers.

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Originally written on September 8th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Ahab’s Wife, or the Star-Gazer” by Sena Jeter Naslund (William Morrow, 1999)

Ahab's Wife
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Ahab’s Wife serves admirably as a companion book to Melville’s Moby-Dick and having read both, I think I can safely say that if Herman Melville were to read Ahab’s Wife, he would be more than happy with the duty and accuracy Naslund devotes to the period, the prose, and its homage to Melville’s opus.

This is the life story of Una, the wife of Ahab – the peg-legged determined-bordering-on-insane captain of the Pequod in search of his white whale.  The cover of the book depicts a Puritan-clothed  woman on a harsh beach looking out into a rough sea, while further down the beach lies the broken hulk of an old ship.  It creates images and ideas of a worrying woman left at home for years at a time to tend to house and children, while her husband is out braving the sea, fighting giants monsters in his man’s world.  One would think this a book about her everyday actions, her chores, her repetitive characteristics, and while this is part of the book, there is so much more going on in Una’s life with her triumphs and tribulations, her loves and deaths, her dangerous adventures, and her happy times at home.  This is what makes Ahab’s Wife a welcome companion to Moby-Dick, for while Ahab’s is a story of adventure and danger, Una’s is just as much so.

The book begins, as all life stories should, with a birth, only Una’s mother is all alone in a cabin and naturally it is a birth that almost kills her.  Una’s life is a harsh one in Kentucky and before she is ten, her mother sends her away to her aunt’s.  Una’s father is a devout Christian, while Una is an atheist from a young age, choosing not to blindly believe in what her father tells her to believe.  Her mother fearing for her life, sends her to the distant coast of New England to live with her aunt and uncle in a lighthouse.  And so begins the next chapter in her life, with a different family, in a different place.  With the arrival of two men who come to upgrade the lighthouse, she falls in love with both of them – even though she is still young – knowing that one will be her husband one day.  At the age of eighteen, she leaves the island and the lighthouse for the mainland of Boston and then Nantucket getting by on simple work until she finds the same two men whom she loves on a whaling ship.  Disguising herself as a young boy she joins the crew and experiences the whaling life of her future husband.  It is here that she first sees The Pequod and meets Ahab, who by then is an old man but still respectable and honorable.  Ahab is the one to marry Una to Kit when her existence on the ship, love for that man, and her femininity are all revealed.

A whale stoves in the ship and Una spends many days on a small boat with the remaining crew reduced to cannibalism – harking to the story of Moby-Dick as well as the story of the whale ship Essex, which was the impetus for Melville’s work.  It is on the return journey to Nantucket that the other love of her life dies tragically and her husband Kit essentially goes insane.  Upon returning to land and leaving her husband due to his condition, Una’s life slows down and her relationship with Ahab begins until their marriage and happiness together.  It is here that the story of Moby-Dick truly begins and the reader gets to meet the familiar characters of the classic book.  But while Ahab spends years away from home, Una’s life goes on with the birth of a child and the struggles of her life.  It is upon the return and meeting of Ishmael that Una learns of the doomed story of Ahab, his white whale, and his death.

The book could be considered technically over at this point, but this is the story of Una, who is still very much alive.  The rest of her life is spent interacting with Ishmael and even meeting and interacting with the slave who fought for his freedom, Frederick Douglass.  And while she never forgets her life with Ahab, she eventually finds another husband and in the waning years of her life is happy once more.

What makes Ahab’s Wife a truly impressive book is not just its intended mimicry of Moby-Dick with the crossing over of characters, similar layout of the book with many chapters and illustrations, and actual scenes involving the same locations in both books such as the church with the pulpit carved to imitate the bow of a ship which the same preacher from Moby-Dick climbs the ladder to the top of, screaming of hellfire and damnation; it is the prose and how Naslund writes that truly emulates the style of Melville, making this a truly important work of literature deserving a place in the shelves with Melville, James and Hawthorne.

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Originally written on February 17th, 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.